Nobody inside the stadium wanted it to end.
And perhaps nobody there wanted to believe Serena Williams’ professional tennis career in Canada had just ended.
A capacity crowd of 9,500 fans inside Sobeys Stadium in Toronto cheered wildly on Wednesday night as Williams wiped tears away from her eyes — just 24 hours after Williams announced her impending retirement, the emotion of the moment grabbed hold of the 40-year-old.
In a match that lasted one hour and 17 minutes, Swiss player Belinda Bencic defeated one of the best-ever to play the game in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4.
“There are a lot of emotions. I always love playing here in Canada. I wish I could have been better but Belinda played so well today. It’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours,” Williams said.
In a lengthy on-court, post-match interview, Williams tried to find words to meet the moment — that 27 years after her pro tennis debut at a Tier 3 tournament in Quebec City, this would be the way her pro tennis career in Canada would end.
“It’s just been so overwhelming,” Williams said, fighting back tears.
“I’m terrible with goodbyes. But goodbye Toronto.”
She continued, being interrupted by fans saying they loved her.
“I love you all,” Williams yelled back.
“There’s been some really good times here and I’ll be coming back as a visitor to this city. It’s been remarkable. I’ve had some amazing matches out here. And cool moments.”
And then after being presented with flowers and paintings and Toronto Maple Leaf and Raptors jerseys, the 23-time Slam singles winner made her final walk off the court in Canada.
The crowd roared. They waved. Many cried. Williams cried, wiping her face with a towel as she waved to the crowd.
“Thank you for all of the support,” Williams said.
It couldn’t have been a more different scene on Wednesday evening than what Williams faced when she was just 14 years playing her first pro match in Canada.
Nobody knew who she was. And certainly nobody had any idea what she was about to become — and that she would dominate for the next two decades.
When she played that qualifying match in Quebec City 27 years ago she was defeated in straight sets in less than an hour. There were no fans. No player introductions. It was unmemorable.
| Serena Williams plays final match in Canada:
And while this was also a straight-set loss on this night, this match, the scenes that played out inside the stadium in Toronto were unforgettable.
To her credit, Bencic was sensational on a night that was all about Williams. And the Swiss tennis player knew it too.
Bencic showed poised and calm throughout the evening, weathering a boisterous crowd that was very much against her to build an early 3-1 lead.
On an idyllic night for tennis in Toronto, with a light breeze swirling around Sobeys stadium and the sun blasting down on fans seated in the eastside grandstand, Williams tried to keep up with the younger, quicker, powerful backhand hitter in Bencic.
But time and time again Bencic proved to be too much. She cruised to a first set victory, 6-2, in just 41 minutes.
Throughout the evening the crowd tried to motivate Williams by yelling and clapping. A number of occasions the head umpire asked the fans to be quiet. But they continued, hoping they could rally Williams.
And it seemed to work early in the second set.
Williams held serve and seemed to have a jump in her set. She was moving around the court, hitting the ball harder and had eliminated some of the unforced errors that plagued her in the first set.
But with the score tied 4-4, Bencic was able to break Williams to take a 5-4 lead and serve for the match. She made no mistake and ended it in short order.
And just like that it was over.
Game. Set. Match. <br><br>Belinda Bencic defeats Serena Williams in straight sets — 6-2, 6-4. <br><br>The crowd is standing. And cheering endlessly. For the greatest ever. As Williams says goodbye to Canada. <br><br>What a scene here. Williams wiping away tears as she leaves the court. <a href=”https://t.co/Ekq8cZpODP”>pic.twitter.com/Ekq8cZpODP</a>
But before all of the drama and emotion and the end, there was celebration and acknowledgement and respect.
It was hard to escape the omnipresence of Williams around the stadium in Toronto. A larger-than-life banner of her was draped outside the venue.
On pillars inside the concourse there are photos of Williams highlighting her three Canadian championships.
Minutes before Williams took to the court there was a video tribute inside the venue as fans spilled into their seats.
Another tennis legend, Billie Jean King started.
“She’s used tennis as a platform way beyond just the sport. Making it better for women, particularly better for women of colour. You’re the best,” King said as a part of her tribute.
Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky finished. Greatness recognizing greatness.
Fans held signs saying “Toronto loves Serena” and “GOAT” — greatest of all time.
Danger zone for Williams now. <br><br>Bencic just broke her. Leads 4-3 and serving. Up a set. <br><br>Crowd still into it. <a href=”https://t.co/q5Kw5AMBLV”>pic.twitter.com/q5Kw5AMBLV</a>
And it’s hard to argue that.
Williams has won 855 matches. She’s won four Olympic gold medals. 47 career hard court titles.
On three occasions Williams won the Canadian title — winning it all in 2001, then again 10 years later in 2011. Her last win in Canada came in 2013. She’s the last American woman to win in Canada.
Her longevity and ability to stay great throughout it all is unparalleled. Ten of her 23 Slam titles came after the age of 30.
And now after all that winning and all those years, it’s quickly coming to an end.
Williams will exit the court one last time at the U.S. Open in New York next month. She loves playing there – at Arthur Ashe Court, the largest tennis stadium in the world.
It’s probably because on the biggest stages throughout her career, Williams met the pressure and expectations and detractors and every opponent she faced with a fighting spirit not many could match.
| Fans in Toronto pay tribute to Serena Williams: